Actual Play – Bloodstone Idol (1/7/2011)

MC: Sean Nittner
Players: Alex Miller, Charles Stone, Meghan Miller and Brendan McGuigan
System: Dungeon World

I was really excited about running Dungeon World for Alex and Charles. Specifically because I had a good experience playing it with Shaun Hayworth and I hoped that maybe it would be THE system we ended up using to pick back up a D&D campaign we stared 20 years ago. Sadly, the game was very frustrating to me, which really surprised me based on my past experience and the many good things I have heard about it.

This game I had a much longer session than last time (6 hours instead of the previous 1.5), saw many more rolls, played with more characters and generally felt I had more exposure to the system. I had high hopes and part of my frustration (which is mostly what I’m going to write about here) came from the disappointment that no, this won’t be the game we can use long term.

I’m not going to talk about the adventure much. It’s the sample one in the back of the book (Bloodstone Idol) and as adventures go, I think the DW guys did some fun stuff with it. They pose questions I found interesting to ask in the game, and created a situation with some nuance that I enjoyed.

In summary here are the highs and lows of the game. To its detriment:

  • Dungeon World lacks desperation and scarcity. This created difficulty creating motivations in play and during character creation.
  • Dungeon World stacks a tactical system on top of a narrative resolution, slowing down and confusing the narration.
  • Dungeon World moves are tropes taken from D&D and sometimes feel shoe-horned into Apocalypse World moves.

To its credit:

  • Dungeon World is very well written, and conveyed how the game should be played clearly and encouragingly.
  • Dungeon world give the MC an agenda and principles that are excellent tools for any GM(MC) in any game.

A lack of desperation

Right off the bat, there is something that Apocalypse World (AW) has that Dungeon World (DW) lacks, and that is desperation. To DW’s credit, it doesn’t claim to have this desperation, but that still affects me a lot when running a game.

Here’s what I mean by desperation. There is a fundamental scarcity in AW that means that ever action has a consequence. You kill Dremmer, the custodian of the town well because he keeps giving you muddy water and saving the best stuff for his people? Fine, now who is going to operate the well? Church Head could do it, but he’s that drowning lung disease everyone in the flats is catching and needs help before he can work it by himself. The Carpark has antibiotics, but they hate you over there after that last job…

That scarcity means that even when the players completely succeed in their goals, there is story to be told because the world is so tight that everything they do creates future interesting, compelling and relevant situations. I can imagine an AW game where the players succeed at everything they try (rolling 10+) and still end the game neck deep in problems…that they caused!

DW, because it isn’t post-apocalyptic, because it engages the tropes of D&D, lacks that desperation and scarcity. There is an ork with a pie. What is the simple solution? Kill the ork! Nobody cares. Even if they do, it will be more orks, you can kill them too! A patron offers you 100 gold to go on a mission for him. You pocket his money and then decide to do the job or not? What is he going to do if you don’t? If he had the military might to take you out, why not just do the job himself? Sure, you can create repercussion to all of these choices, but the setting does not reinforce them, in fact it pretty much encourages play in a world without repercussions or scarcity… I mean, you’re SUPPOSED to kill the ork!

How did this come up in our game: I felt the characters motivation to explore the Bloodstone Idol and stop Grunloch were non-existent from the get go. The adventure had several hooks, questions to ask the players to get them invested, which I used. The process took about an hour, and mirrored the “backstory” process that I learned from Brian Isikoff. I asked the Kithraset (the elven fighter) about the fight she with Kroth, the Icescale Lizardman and found out that she not only lost the fight but in doing so lost the shipment she was guarding. Great, now the Kithraset wants to get back both the stolen goods and her pride! Cool, that works, it gets them started and out the door, but it’s single nudge, not a constant and evolving force. There was nobody else (besides the PCs) in the adventure to keep pushing. It’s the nature of a dungeon crawl. You’re away from society. AW puts the dungeon smack dab in the middle of society (what’s left of it).

I could tell this was a problem when Alex kept asking the question “why are we here again? What are we doing?” Some players remembered, but that question itself told me motivations weren’t clear and enforced. The players kept wondering about just leaving rather than continuing on to find Grundloch (the guy they were supposed to stop). I wasn’t annoyed by the question, but it re-enforced for me that in AW the PCs exist within a setting integral to them. In DW, just like in D&D the PCs exist independent of their environment and to me that means more work for the GM (or MC) to constantly provide impetus for them to act.

Tactics stacked on top of a Narrative

Here is the real meat and potatoes problem that I have with Dungeon World. The game uses the dice mechanic from Apocalypse World, but betrays its intended use. What does that mean?
In AW, the dice will generate one of three results:

  • On a 10+, the PC achieved their intent and play follows from their success.
  • On a 7-9, the PC either achieves their intent with some significant consequence or achieves a worse version of their intent. In the first case play follows both from their success AND the consequence (often creating two new narratives). In the latter case, it follow from their muddled success.
  • On a 6-, the PC does not achieve their intent and the MC makes hard move, which generally means the world is resisting the change they are trying to make, often in a violent or otherwise nasty way. Play follows from the cause of their failure (which is generally some external factor, not the character’s incompetence) and the results of their failure (the hard move).

Regardless of outcome, the dice indicate a change in the narrative that is inherently rewarding because it is a response to the character’s action. Trying to convince a warlord to bring vanquish the bastards in Carpark? Roll a 7. Sure, he’ll do it, but wants you paying tribute to him. Where is that pretty sister of yours?

Some of Dungeon World works like this. When you act to Defy Danger and leap over a chasm and clutch onto a giant idol for instance, or Parley with a goblin to make him king if he lets you pass safely; then you could get all of those results, in nearly the exact same fashion as AW.

The game adds a combat system on top of that though. So when you try to stab said goblin, instead of a 10+ resulting in his last dying words being spat at you, you roll Damage minus his armor and subtract from his HP. If he lives… we move onto the next exchange. What? Why?

This bothers me for two reasons. First, it means that we’re not setting stakes any more, we’re doing task resolution? Do I stab him, yes or no? Task resolution means that we’re making meaningless rolls of the dice to generate results that don’t push forward the narrative. At least until the goblin finally drops… or you do.

Twice my players tried this move. “I’m standing next to the edge, when the goblin charges as me, I step out of the way and throw him over.” They succeeded, rolled damage and I described him landing on the ground, the wind knocked out of him. Not thrown over the edge. Why not? They didn’t do enough damage. On a 10+ he should have gone sailing, but my interpretation of the rules told me otherwise. That resulted in a very unsatisfying resolution for the players.

The second reason, which is a really big deal for me is risk-aversion vs. risk-taking. In AW, you know that if you get a 10+ you’re going to get what you want (more or less) and even on a 7+ you’ll get some version of it. The characters are meant to be hyper competent. In DW, however, since a 10+ doesn’t guarantee success, but a 6- does guarantee failure, they players very quickly did some mental math and decided it would be better in many cases for them to do anything. I told them if they did nothing while in danger, it was the same as if they rolled a 6-, that bad things would happen to them, so they took action, but often begrudgingly. They weren’t feeling rewarded for their actions and so stopped being inclined to take them.

DW tells players to be great heroes and is written as though they have the competence of their AW counterparts, but they don’t. So not only is it foddering a risk-averse play style, it is lying to the players and the MC.

Both as MC and from my players (we talked about this for hours after the game), we enjoyed the moves that were written with a narrative resolution (e.g. Parley or Spout Lore) and very much disliked the tactical options.

We had some discussion about how you would differentiate those who are better in combat (like the Fighter hitting you with a sword vs. the Wizard hitting you with his stick) and I was stumped at the time but realized after thinking about it, that isn’t a concern at all in AW. The Gunlugger is clearly a combat monster, he doesn’t need to roll a d10 damage vs. a wizard rolling a d4 damage to prove that. He has moves and weapons that make him a menace without any kind of post-roll resolution.

Shoe-horned moves

Dungeon World borrows tropes from D&D and then makes AW style moves out of them. That is groovy, or at least I thought it was groovy, until I kept wondering what move we should make.

When the thief tried to make an offer to the goblin, but lied to him, I thought Parley was the move to use, but Parley assumes that you are offering something they want or need. The question here is whether or not the thief could tell a convincing lie so they goblin believed he had something he wanted.

In AW this would have been a no-brainer. You’re trying to tell a lie without getting caught and the deal depends on him believing that lie, you’re acting under fire. Simple. In DW though, the move “Defy Danger” is tied to dexterity. Now, despite the fact that the thief could do just fine with roll+dex (he was a thief after all), Dexterity in no way seemed appropriate to the move. Cool would have been just fine.

Later when the thief wanted to sneak we saw he had moves for picking locks or pockets, for finding and disarming traps, etc but not for sneaking around. Our first idea was just to have him roll to “Defy Danger” to sneak in but then realized he was scouting and it should really be “Discern Realities”. This kind of confusion, where we eventually found the moves to use came up several times and was frustrating.

In Apocalypse World I have always felt the basic moves covered all the normal things you would want to do and the playbook moves were awesome stuff that made my eyes go wide when I say “I can do this? Awesome!” In DW, we scrambled to find moves we could use to fulfill the tropes of D&D. The wizard kept asking “where is my ‘feather fall’ spell?” and generally wondering why he couldn’t do more with magic. Trying to capture the D&D tropes may have been part of our problem. Since we saw many of them (Pick pockets, hit points, magic missile, etc) we expected to find them all. The end result was feeling caged by the moves, rather than empowered by them.

Well written

Despite my frustrations, Dungeon World is very well written. It speaks to the players and conveys how to play the game in an evocative voice while still being clear and not alienating readers who doesn’t feel “hip” enough to understand the jargon. I would live to see Sage and Adam re-write Apocalypse World with this in mind.

DW also articulates the principles and agenda of an MC very well. I found myself regularly looking at them when deciding how to narrate one of my moves and finding a lot of great guidance. The moves for each danger also helped out immensely. When a player failed to hit a goblin, rather than just getting stabbed I saw “activate a primitive trap” and “sound the alarm” and thought those moves would be a lot more fun to play out…and they were.

Final thoughts

This article was pretty critical. I don’t mean it ask a knock on Dungeon World as much as it is a clear signal to me of what types of games I want to play.

Also, it’s worth looking at why I enjoyed the game the first time I played it, and was so frustrated the second time. Some thoughts on that. The first time I played it I saw a lot or risk-averse play but blamed that on old school players. Having run it I can see how the system was encouraging risk-aversion rather than risk-taking. The first time I played I was a fighter that did a lot of damage. I was unlucky on my roll+str but very lucky on my damage rolls. The result was when I rolled 6- bad things happened to me (as I expected) and when I rolled a 10+ I accomplished my goals (as expected). What I didn’t see until watching my players roll hack and slash was how rare those narrative outcomes are. Finally, when I played the fighter, I was really enamored with the “Bend Bards/Lift gates” move and used it as frequently as I could. That move was definitely written with an AW-style narrative resolution. I didn’t try many others that might have led to less satisfying progression in the story.

I’ve played Dungeon World twice. I have some pretty strong sentiments about it but I’m going to give it at least one more try. I’ve been wrong before about games I thought I didn’t like and I hope this is the case with DW.